Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

I Would Cope

Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism. ~ Arnold Bennett, Things That Have Interested Me

Optimists are blessed with a gift; one that according to psychologists is the most helpful personality trait we can possess.

Those happy-go-lucky, ‘Cheer up, it’s not so bad!’ optimists always see the bright side. They see problems as insignificant stones in the path of life; and they possess an unquenchable conviction in their ability to kick those stones aside.

They’re like Duracell powered bunnies; whatever happens, whatever gets in their way, they just keep on beating their drums.

Shame… But It’s Not That Bad

I’m not a natural optimist. In fact I’m quite the opposite: an OCD driven worst case scenario catastrophizer. My innate inclination is to get on a plane and think to myself, ‘I’m about to die’ .

But pessimism – as the starting quote suggests – isn’t all that bad.

In fact, pessimism taken to the next level can be pretty comforting and motivating. Refined and polished, it can actually be like a negative form of back-door optimism.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

There really isn’t much to differentiate an optimist from a pessimist. Unless they’re a complete white cane, blind optimist, even an optimist will see the potential negative in a situation.

An optimist, just like a pessimist, might think, ‘I could lose my job over this’, ‘This relationship is falling apart’ or, ‘I’m not sure I can get this done’.

It’s just that their follow on interpretation – how they process that information – is different:

An optimist, confronted with adversity will naturally think:

  • It’s not so bad
  • Is that really the case – or am I just thinking the worst?
  • There are loads of ways to get out of this
  • Look at the opportunities that have arisen because of this setback!
  • I’ll be able to cope… it’s not the end of the world.
  • I’ve met similar adversity before, I always get through

Instead of fixating on the worst case scenario, they have an innate knack of minimising its significance; even seeing the alternative positive possibilities that might arise from their setback.

The Dark Side of the Coin

Pessimists on the other hand, tend to dwell on the worst case scenario like rhinos wallowing in mud. We fixate on it – allowing it to consume us – as if its realisation would condemn us to a life of unrelenting misery.

‘I could lose my job over this… I wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage… I’ll end up sleeping in the neighbour’s shed sharing a dirty duvet and body warmth with a stinky stray tomcat.’

A myriad of nightmarish images swirl through our heads, snowballing out of control. An all-consuming, life-destroying nightmare unfolds before our mind’s eye.  We end up feeling as helpless, hopeless and anxious as a condemned man staring at a noose.

The (Negative) Leap to Optimism

Although optimists have an innate gift for trivializing adversity, the good news is that pessimists can learn that trick too. It just requires a little more conscious effort.

To do so, we have to force ourselves to consciously confront the worst case scenario head on. We have to stare down the barrel of that loaded nightmare gun and ask ourselves:

  • What really is the worst that could happen?
  • What really would be the implications of this bad event – for example, losing a job – if it was to occur?
  • What could I do in that event to minimise the blow?
  • Is there any preemptive action I can take to minimise the risk of that worst case scenario even occurring?

We have to take the time to rationally analyse that worst case scenario, as well as its implications; as if an onlooker, detached from the situation, giving an objective opinion.

I Realise Now… I Really Would Cope

It may seem as counter-intuitive as picking the stitches out of a fresh wound, but when you confront and analyse any problem in this way, the chances are that you’ll realise:

  1. The problem isn’t so bad.
  2. The situation could be far worse.
  3. You’d find a way to cope.

And as you do, a calming wave of reassurance washes over you.

All you need is the courage and will to consciously analyse those pessimistic thoughts; to give them crystal clear form. To know down to the smallest detail what you’re worrying about, to call those thoughts to account, to be able to contradict them; and to figure out a ‘plan B’ – to have the certainty of knowing what you’d do to make the situation more bearable.

If we do that – the trick of the mind that naturally comes easily to optimists – we tend to arrive at a similar conclusion:

That what you are worrying about is ultimately trivial – it’s impermanent and surmountable. You would recover. You would cope. You would go on.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth